Capitol Briefs: Sept. 10-14

CRAIG FINALLY leaves: The biggest and the most bizarre question on Capitol Hill as Congress returned this week was whether Sen. Larry Craig (R.-Idaho) would honor his apparent pledge to resign by September 30. After a week of sensational news about his guilty plea to “disorderly conduct” following his arrest in a Minneapolis Airport restroom in June, an emotional Craig apologized to voters and his family and announced his intent to resign at the end of the month. Within days, the embattled senator suddenly indicated he was taking steps to back out of the guilty plea he made in Minneapolis — very difficult to do, agree many legal scholars — and might not resign after all. This prompted fury from embarrassed colleagues, with Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R.-Utah) telling reporters: “Any reconsideration would be a mistake. Once you announce you are resigning, you don’t take it back.” Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said he felt that Craig “made the difficult, but correct decision to resign. That would still be my view today.”

Finally, Craig spokesman Dan Whiting announced that the senator would indeed leave at the end of the month. In Idaho, Republican Gov. Butch Otter’s office made it clear he was working on the assumption that the 61-year-old Craig would exit by September 30 and Otter would proceed with appointing a successor — most likely, Gem State sources say, Lt.Gov. Jim Risch, a strong conservative, who would be regarded as a heavy favorite to keep this seat in GOP hands.

THOMPSON SURGES: As he was making his bid for the Republican presidential nomination official last week, former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) was also surging in key states that are holding early-bird primaries next year. In Michigan, an American Research Poll showed Thompson running third among likely primary voters with 12%, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (who was born in the state and is the son of a former Michigan governor) at 39% and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at 13%. In South Carolina, a just-completed Clemson University “Palmetto Poll” actually shows Thompson in first place among likely primary voters, edging Giuliani 19% to 18% statewide.

PERINO TO FOLLOW SNOW: Less than a week after Karl Rove announced his exodus from the Bush White House, Tony Snow said that he would leave as press secretary September 14. Easily one of the most popular faces of the administration, the 52-year-old Snow made the daily televised briefings for White House reporters a lively session — so much so that he became a sought-after speaker for Republican candidates in the ‘06 elections (the first White House press secretary to do such campaign chores). Snow, who cited “financial reasons” — not his battle with cancer — for his planned departure, reportedly took a 90% pay cut from his radio show, Fox television commentaries, lectures and articles to become the $168,000-a-year top spokesman for the President. To no one’s surprise, the President announced that Snow would be succeeded by his deputy, Dana Perino. A former television reporter and Capitol Hill press secretary, Perino won high marks when she filled in for Snow during his month-long absence for cancer treatment.

THOMPSON’S TEAM: Following Fred Thompson’s announcement of his candidacy, Thompson’s campaign staff confirmed that Mark Esper has been named Policy Director and National Security Advisor, making him the one member of Thompson’s foreign policy team with a formal title so far. Joel Shin and Elizabeth Cheney are on board as outside advisors. Esper was director of national security affairs for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), and his national security experience includes terms as a deputy assistant secretary of Defense, policy director for the House Armed Services Committee and staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Shin served on George W. Bush’s campaign policy staff and worked for the Bush-Cheney transition. Cheney, daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, is a former official in the State Department Near East and South Asia division. All three are known for their Bush-like advocacy of America’s encouraging the spread of democracy throughout the world and their hawkish views on Iraq and regime change in Iran.

THREE GOVS: ‘VETO SCHIP, MR. PREZ!’ All but three Republican governors are pleading with President Bush not to make good on his threat to veto the expanded State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP): The three exceptions are Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who spoke to Human Events Political Editor John Gizzi at the recent Midwestern Republican Leadership Conference in Indianapolis (see “Politics”). “SCHIP shouldn’t be for well-to-do families,” Daniels told Gizzi, warning that if the expanded program were ever to become law, “don’t be surprised if we then have expansion into national healthcare.” (See Rob Bluey cover story.) As to the recent letter from the administration to state health officials sharply limiting the waivers that states have applied for to make wider application of SCHIP, Daniels, a onetime director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, said simply: “We can live with it.” The governor went on to voice his long-standing view that the healthcare issue “is a state prerogative” and that the answer to the healthcare problem is “a market-based solution and greater empowerment of the states.”

WARNER OUT, WHO’S IN? To almost no one’s surprise, 80-year-old Virginia GOP Sen. John Warner announced August 31 that he will not run for a sixth term next year. Almost immediately after Warner’s announcement, Virginia Republicans focused on a likely fierce nomination battle between conservative former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who recently abandoned a bid for the GOP presidential nomination, and more moderate Rep. Tom Davis (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 70%), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. One veteran state political operative noted that, without an incumbent, the Republican State Committee would choose the means of nominating the GOP Senate candidate and that the odds were “55% to 45% it will be a state convention rather than a primary” — which local politicos think would work to Gilmore’s advantage. Democrats are strongly hoping that popular former Gov. Mark Warner will run, but he is reportedly torn among a Senate race, a possible cabinet post in a Democratic administration or a return race for the governorship in ’09.

NEW OMB DIRECTOR: The Senate, by a vote of 69 to 24, last week finally confirmed former conservative Iowa GOP Rep. Jim Nussle (lifetime ACU rating: 86%) to be director of the Office of Management and Budget, replacing Rob Portman, who left in August. As a former chairman of the House Budget Committee, Nussle will soon be working with his former colleagues to see that the expected presidential vetoes of some bloated spending bills are sustained. Most of the mandatory appropriation bills remain to be passed before the new fiscal year begins October 1.